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ISSN: 2183-2439

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The Form of Game Formalism

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Abstract:  This article explores how the concept of formalism and the resulting method of formal analysis have been used and applied in the study of digital games. Three types of formalism in game studies are identified based on a review of their uses in the literature, particularly the discussion of essentialism and form that resulted from the narratology-ludology debate: 1) formalism focused on the aesthetic form of the game artifact, 2) formalism as game essentialism, and 3) formalism as a level of abstraction, related to formal language and ontology-like reasoning. These three are discussed in relation to the distinctions between form and matter, in the Aristotelian tradition, to highlight how the method of formal analysis of games appears to be dealing with matter rather than form, on a specific fundamental level of abstraction, and in turn how formal analysis becomes a misleading concept that leads to unnecessary confusion. Finally, the relationship between game essentialism and the more computer science-centric approach to ontology is studied, to account for the contemporary trend of identifying the unique properties of games and opposing them with properties of, e.g., traditional storytelling media like literature and film, explored through their aesthetic form.

Keywords:  aesthetic formalism; game formalism; game studies; research methods; research ideologies; Russian Formalism



© Ea C. Willumsen. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.